“Whack” is a More Fitting Name

Knack for PlayStation 4

Knack

$47.45 at Amazon 

(2/5)

Pros: Charming graphical style, fun story

Cons: Repetitive, linear, boring gameplay

When Sony announced their next generation console, the Playstation 4, one of the first titles they showed off for it was a curious little game called Knack. It looked interesting enough, and famous developer Mark Cerny was the director behind it. It was immediately on my radar because the rest of the line-up was focused around genres I generally don’t enjoy. Launch day came and Knack was the title I picked to play on my shiny new PS4. The basic design immediately showed promise, but ultimately it proved to be largely uninspired. Knack isn’t a bad game, but it’s a really boring one.

Knack takes place in a fantasy world where technology reigns supreme. Despite the advanced weapons and tools at their disposal attacks from hordes of goblins and other creatures are still a big threat to the human population. A kindly old scientist is studying ancient relics to be used as weapons, and creates a mechanical creature named Knack. Knack features advanced intelligence allowing him to think for himself, but his ability to absorb materials into his body to gain considerable size and power is the most impressive aspect of this little guy. The story kicks off as Knack is sent out to thwart the goblin threat, but there’s more at work here with your typical villains pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The story isn’t particularly great, but it’s charming and fun.

At its core Knack is a platforming game. You navigate through linear environments via a third person viewpoint and your goal is generally only to make it from one side of a level to the end. Enemies slow your progress and populate the various environments. Combat generally takes place in closed off arenas in which you must destroy all opponents before continuing on. Knack himself is quite formidable with the ability to punch, jump (up to twice) and he can even attack while in mid-air. You’re armed with both a life bar and special gauge that fills up as you destroy yellow crystals. When this is full you can launch one of three special attacks that are extremely powerful. Enemy attacks deplete your health and cause Knack to lose pieces of his body, and when you’re defeated you begin again from the last checkpoint you reached.

The most interesting part of this game is how Knack’s body size and composition has an effect on gameplay. In certain areas your character adds relics to his body and becomes significantly larger. Knack’s power increases as he gains mass; it’s fun to watch him go from a small little guy to a hulking mass that can throw tanks. Enemies that once gave you trouble are now mere ants. In the final stretch of the game Knack becomes as big as the mountains themselves. In some areas his body gains ice and wood which add new dynamics (namely you have to avoid fire), but the most interesting are the clear crystals which allow Knack to bypass certain obstacles but he becomes extremely frail. This adds a little diversity to gameplay, but not nearly enough to be honest.

Knack is far too linear for its own good. It feels like you’re running through a hallway in every single level, and the enemies and obstacles repeat far too often. The design is painfully bland and you can’t bypass enemy encounters because the game often blocks your progress until all enemy threats are defeated. Combat itself is extremely generic and soon becomes downright boring because your options are limited. It’s unfortunate because the premise had potential. On the plus side this game features local co-op, but it feels like a total afterthought. The camera only follows player one which means the other person will often get left behind off-screen. When the distance is too wide between the two the second player is automatically caught up which is often disorienting. Because of its questionable integration multi-player just isn’t as fun as I expected it would be.

To make matters worse combat is boring and unrewarding. Simplicity is generally something I like in modern games, but the design is far too limiting and encourages button mashing. Special skills help mix things up a bit, but because you have to charge energy to be able to use them they’re a rarity during gameplay. It’s not just the simple combat nor is it the linear style that ruin this game; it’s the combination of the two which makes Knack a pain to play. To make matters worse this was a full priced release, and it can be completed in under ten hours, but even that feels too long. Knack is mindless, but ‘fun’ isn’t exactly the word I would use to describe it.

Unfortunately the graphics are also underwhelming. Although it runs at an impressive resolution and the main character has a lot of moving parts it almost looks as if it could have been done on the PS3. This is another problem caused by the small enclosed environments. Some areas such as the volcano look nice, but by and large the environments are extremely small and simple. The particle effects are fairly impressive, but where they really shine is during the battle with the final boss. The art style makes Knack look like it could have been a Pixar film with simple (for the most part) character designs and cartoon qualities. The characters look really nice and are the high point in my opinion. Unfortunately the frame rate suffers constantly and it was rare that the game didn’t appear to be stuttering. Knack just isn’t particularly impressive looking.

The soundtrack is very subtle. Quiet instrumentation gives the environments an ambient feel, and the music fits the game very well. Unfortunately there just isn’t a whole lot of it. Knack features only a handful of different compositions which is disappointing, but what’s there is well done. The voice acting can be laughably bad at times, but I think it adds to the overall charm personally. Sound effects are well done and I was impressed at how realistic the samples are. What’s cool is the fact that many of these are channeled through the controller’s speaker. The controls work well enough as Knack responds quickly and accurate to your inputs. The simple scheme makes this one easy to jump right in to, and the tutorial is extremely well done. The only issue I had is with perspective. The camera often displays the action from the side but this causes issues when trying to predict jumps. It’s not a big deal, but I did find this occasionally annoying.

The Playstation 4’s library would have benefited from a quality mascot based platforming action game, but Knack just wasn’t up to the task. I tried so hard to like it, but in the end I was just happy to be over and done with it. Some of the ideas explored here are interesting (such as absorbing elements of the environment) but it’s hard to get excited about such an uninspired design. It’s not even a good game to show off the next gen hardware in the system. Kids might get some enjoyment out of it, but everyone else should avoid Knack like the plague.

Forget the Nudity, it’s the Technical Ineptitude that’s Shocking: CHILD BRIDE

CHILD BRIDE

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See it at Amazon 

(2/5)

Pros: It’s amusing in a way and could never be made today; Shirley Mills is a trooper and delivers a decent lead performance
Cons: Boring and technically inept; overblown message; questionable motivation and approach

From the golden age of exploitation comes one of the most infamous films of the 1930s, Child Bride.  Harry Revier, who first came to prominence as a director of silent films and later made a handful of these exploitation “scare pictures,” wrote and directed this warning and social awareness piece about child marriage, a practice that, when this film was made in 1938, was still legal in some jurisdictions.  The story here falls in line with the usual Reefer Madness-style cautionary tale:  taking place in a backwoods town in the Ozarks, pre-teen Jennie Colton finds herself the object of affection for a much older man who blackmails Jennie’s mother into allowing him to wed the girl.  It  becomes difficult to determine whether or not Revier was seriously trying to make a film in protest of this great “social injustice” or just producing an eye-opening piece of trash that skirted past film censorship boards by being made independently and having supposed educational value.

Numerous exploitation films of this type included things that were unacceptable in mainstream cinema (i.e. nudity, drug use, violence, etc) in the name of educating an audience about “pressing social issues of the time.” Frequent topics of discussion were drug (ab)use, and “sexual hygiene” but the educational value of most exploitation films was questionable at best – it’s scary to think that films like 1945’s Mom and Dad (“You actually SEE the birth of a baby”) provided sex education to a generation of younger Americans. Many people just went to see these films (some of which were accompanied by a carnival side-show like presentation) precisely because they contained elements that couldn’t be seen elsewhere – nudity was a major selling point. Along those lines, Child Bride’s main claim to fame is a section in the middle of the film that includes a brief topless shot of the then-twelve-year-old child actress Shirley Mills and a rather lengthy skinny-dipping scene. 

Honestly, the attention this scene has received over the years is almost ridiculous: it’s much ado about nothing, but in an American society that’s seen its share of scandals over the concepts and interpretation of obscenity laws and what constitutes child pornography, it’s no wonder Child Bride would have caused a firestorm.  Without a doubt, the nudity from an underage actress in the 2001 French film Fat Girl is more eye-opening than anything here, mostly because of the (sexual) context of that nudity, but in a society that’s frequently had an odd relationship with sex, a naked pre-pubescent child is something to talk about.  In the end though, I’m more shocked that Mills’s parents – and the actress herself – would be OK with doing a nude scene in Child Bride than with the (rather harmless) nude scene itself. 

The notoriety that was achieved by featuring any nudity (let alone from a pre-teen) ensured it would be a staple on the exploitation circuit for years, but the film is pretty awful.  Characters here all fall into well-established stereotypes, which is particularly true among the rural townspeople. These folks all come across as the typical hotheaded (and perverted) hillbillies carting around jugs full of moonshine, ogling young girls, and ready to throw punches at the drop of a hat.  Once a (by comparison) progressive teacher is introduced to the mountain town, the stage is set for a culture clash. Obviously, it’s this teacher, who’s urging her politically-inclined boyfriend to push legislation that aims to abolish child marriage, who is the “moral crusader” character of the film fighting for sake of the children and puppies and snowflakes and sunshine.  And of course, the townsfolk view this “uppity” teacher as stepping on their local traditions, so they concoct a plan to “let her know who’s boss in this here town.”  I had a chuckle when one local declared that the new teacher’s ideas were the cause of him “losing the kid” that used to be his wife.  Just wow.

It almost seems like the villagers’s problems with the teacher may be due to the simple fact that she’s teaching their kids to spell – I expected at any minute one of the hillbillies to be delivering a speech that went something like “SPELLING? Who needs it” just to cement to the viewer the fact that these people are clearly not up to speed with regard to modern cultural standards.  The character of the “redneck” has been seen time and again in cinema, but the portrayal here does seem to border on being offensive. Any notion of this film’s subtlety in its messages is tossed out within two minutes of its start when, after the standard exploitation film prologue that explains that Child Bride’s purpose as a film is to bring an end to this diabolical practice of child marriage, Revier has his camera pass by a book entitled Child Marriage Is A Crime that’s sitting on young Jennie’s bookshelf. Because that seems like exactly the book a 12 year old would be reading.  The “good Christian” audiences seeing this film for its “daring expose” would probably have liked the contrast to the forced marriage situation that was provided by the teacher and her boyfriend, who are engaged in a “normal” celibate relationship (that feels really cheesy in the way it’s handled here).  Meanwhile, a group of pregnant “teens” (most of whom appear to be in their late twenties minimum) hang out on the village’s porches and scowl in the couple’s general direction.

Despite a few enjoyably ludicrous scenes scattered throughout the picture (I love a scene early on that features gratuitous abuse of a dwarf – played by famous “little person” actor Angelo Rossitto), it’s the end of Child Bride (when Jennie finds herself facing an arranged marriage to a skeezy older fellow) that has the film going off the deep end.  After a discussion about courtship, the much older man Jake Bolby (after watching Jennie’s earlier nude swim and nearly drooling at the sight) hands Jennie a toy doll and explains to her that she’s about to become his wife. Come again??!?  Later, we see the actual marriage itself and it is AWKWARD! – particularly when little Jennie seems to be consulting with (and prodded by) her mom for every answer she’s providing during the ceremony.  And let’s not even start with the “wedding night” scene that climaxes the film…. This picture just couldn’t be put together in this day and age: though quite earnest in its message, I’d have to seriously question the way in which Revier went about making the picture (to say nothing about his lack of ability as a filmmaker).

What we’re ultimately left with here is an “Ed Wood Bad” level film that boasts atrocious dialogue, goofy acting by a cast of (mostly) unknowns, screechy, melodramatic music and an absurdly over-exaggerated message. Oh, it also just happens to have a nude 12 year old thrown in for good measure – hey, just cause Revier wants to gawk at a nude child doesn’t mean he wants to marry one… Apparently, this film was rejected by the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 not because it didn’t fit their standards of ineptitude (it surely does), but because the film was “disturbing” and probably too controversial for them to even touch.  I’m somewhat astonished it’s even available these days when the concepts of child pornography and pedophilia are such hotbed topics, but the film (which has now fallen into the public domain) can be seen around the web in its uncut entirety and also is featured uncensored on the Alpha Video DVD release (some versions of the film perhaps rightfully have been edited to exclude the nude sequences).  Though many people would likely be quick to judge this film, inevitably, viewers would be more concerned in watching it with the lack of quality than with a few seconds of bare flesh. Nowhere near as much fun as efforts like the off-the-wall Maniac from 1934 or the infamous anti-marijuana films Reefer Madness, Marihuana, and Assassin of Youth also from the mid-’30s, Child Bride may be of interest to curious viewers or connoisseurs of bad movies, but the majority of audiences would be better served wasting their time elsewhere.

Alpha Video, specializing in cheapo DVDs of public domain films, has a decent-quality but expectedly scratchy full-frame version of the film that’s uncut. No extras. This film also be seen in its entirety on many locations around the web as it is a public domain wonder.

2/10 – A few fist fights and bloodless violent scenes

2/10 – Adult subject matter, but no profanity. Numerous priceless dialogue exchanges – and one “pay attention or you’ll miss it” racial exclamation that’s fairly off-color


0/10 – It says a lot about how we are as a culture that this film and its brief, nonsexual shot of a topless pre-teen has ensured the film’s lasting popularity/notoriety. A perfect example of the “Streisand Effect.”

8/10 – A very bad movie about a shocking subject containing nudity from an underage actress. Definite cult value.

“Now listen Jennie…I’mma gonna be your husband. And you’ll wanna be nice to me cuz if you don’t, you know what’ll happen…”

Original Film Trailer:

All Hail King Corobo!

New Little King’s Story for PlayStation Vita

New Little King's Story

 $24.99 at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: Creative gameplay, imaginative setting, charming graphics

Cons: Unnecessary rear touch pad integration, framerate, problematic controls

Little King’s Story was originally released on the Nintendo Wii console, and it’s one of the best games that no one played. This niche title blurred the lines between RPG and real time strategy, and it was extremely unique and very charming. I was surprised when Konami announced that they were publishing a remake of the game for the PlayStation Vita, and the initial screenshots were impressive. The game made use of the more powerful hardware architecture and sported brand new graphics. Unfortunately it wasn’t given a retail release in North America, but it is available on the PSN store. This was one of the first Vita titles that I truly fell in love with, and despite some major issues it’s one of the best games on the platform.

New Little King Story throws you into the role of a young greenhorn king named Corobo. The story begins as his own Alpoko Castle is attacked and overthrown by an army of monsters led by one known as the devil king. Corobo, along with a few of his most trusted subjects, manages to escape and set up camp in a nearby settlement. From here the merry band of unlikely heroes sets into motion a plan to re-unite the kingdom, rescue the seven princesses that have been trapped within magical pillars of light, and take back Alpoko Castle from the devil king and his minions. The biggest change to the story is the incorporation of dating sim elements. Upon rescuing each princess you can woo them, and at the end even choose who among them to make Corobo’s bride. This aspect of the game is a little weird in my opinion, and New Little King’s Story would have been stronger without it.

This title mixes gameplay from several different genres. As Corobo you wander across the kingdom which includes the friendly settlement as well as several hostile zones. The camera stays at semi-overhead view as you play which gives it a feel similar to the Legend of Zelda. Our young protagonist is armed with a sword with which he can strike enemies with, but Corobo is brittle and can only take three hits before being rushed to the infirmary back in town. Thankfully he can command a small army of his loyal subjects and send them forward to interact with the environment or fight enemies in his stead. This is similar to Pikmin; each of these characters has its own life bar (or pie chart, more like) and is returned back to town when this runs out. Combat is entirely real-time but those in your convoy will only perform any kind of action when you press the square button which calls the next person in line to action.

This is where things get tricky. There are several different jobs that you must assign each individual character. These range from combat adept soldiers to farmers who specialize in digging holes. There are several more which including miners, lumberjacks, carpenters, etc. These other job classes aren’t particularly good at fighting and instead specialize in clearing terrain which allows you to access new areas. Many are required to progress in the main story, but others are optional and lead to treasure or help gather supplies. The only thing I didn’t like about this system is the fact that it’s never entirely clear who you need to bring along. You can only have thirty characters in your convoy at once. This decreases your offensive abilities by forcing you to bring a mix of character types.

Customization is a huge part of this game. With money (earned by selling loot and miscellaneous materials) you can expand your kingdom adding housing units to increase the population as well as special buildings that can change the class of your characters. Additionally you can enact laws. These are mostly just for fun and include things like forcing all characters in your kingdom wear swimsuits. What’s cool is that you can customize the equipment of the characters, and they become more powerful as they defeat enemies and complete various tasks. The RPG and kingdom building elements are well integrated into the game and ensure there’s always plenty to do.

Your goal at first to save the seven princesses, but each of them are found in different areas of the world map. The kingdom is absolutely huge and it takes several minutes just to traverse specific areas. The expansive terrain is diverse with grassy plains, beaches, mountains, and even an island. The world map shows where you need to go in order to reach each princess, but these must be freed from the grasp of various boss characters. This is one of the highlights as these encounters are fun, and many are quite dynamic. One in particular plays like a pinball game wherein you have to hit the boss with projectiles with your convoy acting as a paddle. These battles are difficult and will really test your reflexes. Upon freeing the princesses you can add them to your party, and while they cannot participate in battle they offer special skills such as increases to your stats, magical spells that hurt the enemies, and healing.

New Little King’s Story is a lot of fun, but it has its fair share of problems. For starters traversing the the world map is extremely clunky. The characters in your group follow behind Corobo, but they frequently get stuck on elements in the environment. At many points you must travel along narrow paths, and it’s far too easy to leave people behind. If they fall off a cliff they’re stuck, and it’s far too difficult to get them back. Aiming your party members at specific targets, especially small ones, is a practice in futility. The game is far too touchy, and there’s no auto target system in place. You can bring up an on-screen indicator by holding the R button, but this game requires near pixel perfect accuracy. If you miss then the selected character simply runs forward and doesn’t rejoin for several seconds and they are absolutely useless in this time. The game is generally very clunky, but this isn’t enough to ruin the experience.

While New Little King’s Story is a definite graphical upgrade from the Wii version it is a little weak by the Vita’s standards. One unfortunate aspect of this remake is the fact that the sketchbook look is gone. The character designs are more realistic than before, but still adhere to the chibi-anime style that has become so popular. New Little King’s Story is extremely colorful and the soft look is very pleasant. The enemy designs are quite over the top, and I found them to be really charming. Unfortunately the frame rate suffers some major problems especially in highly populated areas. The engine was poorly optimized, and the game never ran smoothly in my experience with it. Presentation is a mixed bag.

Most of the soundtrack consists of remixes of public domain classical music. It’s enjoyable, bouncy, and fits the medieval fantasy theme extremely well. New Little King’s Story also features a small amount of voice acting; mostly generic battle calls and shouts from the characters that join you, but it’s nice in such a low budget release as this. The sound effects are all distinct and helpful in that they inform you when characters in your convoy (even off-screen) are taking damage, and the samples are very high quality. As I mentioned earlier the controls don’t fare very well. Not only is it hard to aim each individual unit, but they frequently get stuck on the environment. The rear touch pad is put into play as another means by which to send forth units, but this proved problematic. It’s difficult for me to keep my fingers off of it while playing, and I found myself accidentally triggering this in the most inconvenient of times. This causes some major problems. The developers should have spent more time with this game and worked out these issues.

New Little King’s Story is one of the most criminally underrated games on the Vita. It has its share of issues, but the gameplay is unique and it’s a lot of fun. The Wii version is slightly better, but this is still a fantastic way to experience the game. I highly recommend it.

The fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel

Valley of Fear

valley of fear

$7.97 at Amazon

(3.5/5)

Pros: English mystery

Cons: Frame

The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was first serialized in 1914-15 (a period during which WWI began). It is the fourth and last Sherlock Holmes novel, and also the second revival of Holmes and his chronicler, Dr. James Watson, after a story announcing the end of such chronicler (“The Adventure of the Second Stain”, the last one in the 1905 The Return of Sherlock Holmes). For me, The Valley of Fear shares the problem of the first two Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890) in having very long backstories set outside England and in which Holmes and Watson do not figure. At least the one in The Valley of Fear follows solving the mystery of how someone blew the head which the drawbridge had been drawn up for the night.

The detection might be titled “The Case of the Missing Barbell” in that Holmes focused on that. I find it disappointing that this is not one of the cases in which Holmes makes his own decision about justice and one in which vengeance is delayed. “The Valley of Fear” is apt for the second story, the backstory set among rapacious Pennsylvania coalmine owners, their workers, and a Pinkerton agent. I cannot reveal how the backstory relates to the case that Holmes investigates. The card left by the corpse, VV341, comes from Vermissa Valley Lodge 341, and Vermissa Valley is the “valley of fear” dominated by Boss McGinty. The conflict between the “Molly Maguires” and Pinkerton agent James McParland (1843-1919)  who infiltrated them is loosely based on fact. Comparing his lifedates to the publication date, he was still alive when Doyle fictionalized some of his adventures from the 1870s.

(BTW, Pinkerton himself was unhappy that the McParland character in Doyle’s version married a local girl (indeed, rivalry for her is the underlying motor of the whole novel). In fact McParland’s brother Charles, who was also an undercover union-busting Pinkerton agent was the one who married a woman from a Pennsylvania coal-mining town.)

Conan_doyle

(Conan Doyle)

In addition to the lumpiness of the long backstory related after the solution of the initial mystery, I find frustrating the awkward frame in which the case (the English one of the corpse in the castle) is linked by Holmes to the nefarious Moriarty, the spider at the center of most of the crime in England in Holmes’s view, though he is unable to prove any connections of crimes to his archenemy. Holmes also fails to do so in The Valley of Fear, and the case against Moriarty herein is very perfunctory (dare I say “unconvincing”?). It also does not fit well with the chronology of the Holmes oeuvre, set before “The Final Problem”  (published in 1893, set in 1891) in which Holmes first learns of the existence of Moriarty… and which was Doyle’s first attempt to be done with his famous character(s).

The Promos Are Better than the Wrestling Itself: FMW – THE LEGEND DAWNS

FRONTIER MARTIAL-ARTS WRESTLING : THE LEGEND DAWNS

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See it at Amazon 

(2/5)

Pros: Hayabusa versus Mike Awesome feud; hilarious promos by the wrestlers
Cons: Horace Boulder’s wrestling “skills”; atrocious DVD presentation; “humor”; mixed bag of matches

The Legend Dawns, second volume of TokyoPop’s video series of Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (or FMW) from Japan, turns out to be even more a hit or miss effort than the first volume (King of the Death Match). I’m appreciative of the fact that this video series focuses on this Japanese wrestling promotion known for its violent, extreme style – when this DVD released in 2000, it was very hard to find any Japanese wrestling available on video in the USA outside of the bootleg/tape trade scene. That said, the production on this DVD series – especially in the early volumes – is pretty much junk. I noticed several times where one can audibly hear director Neil Mandt calling “action” at the front end of the “humorous” (or, in my opinion, completely infantile) studio segments that bookend the actual matches and which feature play by play man John Watanabe and (crap) color commentator Eric Gellar joking around with one another. The actual commentary from this pair of morons during the matches fares little better than their introductory skits – I’m not sure it’s even worth getting into the completely made-up “backstories” for the wrestlers provided by the glaringly untalented writing team of Mandt, Arthur Borman, and Paul Tarantino. It’s as if the FMW video series was written for and by 12-year-olds fascinated by crude sexual humor and fart jokes.

On the actual wrestling front, The Legend Dawns at least is acceptable, though I don’t think average fan completely uninterested in so-called “garbage wrestling” that uses weapons and frequently features bloodshed during matches, would be all that impressed. Some of the FMW wrestlers are legitimately talented, and the tone of action featured here is generally pretty rough if not downright violent. On the other hand, there is a lot of sloppiness in evidence during many of the matches, and some big-time botched moves. I also found that not many of the matches included in this volume were particularly exciting to watch, and one of the main reasons for this is that they’ve nearly been clipped to oblivion by the DVD producers. Essentially, a viewer only gets highlights of any match here, not the whole match from start to finish. In my estimation, this ruins the pace of the wrestling action, giving the viewer a herky-jerky assembly of highlights instead of the normal ebbs and flows of a contest. Combined with the questionable value of some of these matches in the first place, the fact we don’t even see the entire match kind of ruins this volume of the FMW video series. As a whole, the DVD is probably only essential for those who really enjoy extreme and/or Japanese wrestling – and even they are likely to be underwhelmed.

With the first five matches on the DVD from Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall on 7.13.1995 and the last three from 7.30.1995, here’s the match rundown and description:

The action begins with a women’s match, in which Combat “Mother-in-Law” Toyoda was set to take on (and probably annihilate) Bad Nurse Nakamura. However, pre-match, Toyoda’s underling Miwa Sato pleads to take Toyoda’s place in the bout. After some soap opera hysterics, Sato is inserted into the contest and we get a completely unexceptional (to the point of being boring) ladies match in which there’s quite a bit of hair-pulling and screeching, and very few impressive moves. These two move around the ring pretty well, but the string of clotheslines and bitch slaps grows tiresome: the match lacks any big-time highlights. Thankfully, it’s a pretty brief match (perhaps enjoyable only to see the horrific, exaggerated “acting” of Sato both pre- and post-match) though I’d suspect many viewers would be prone to skip it entirely. One star out of five.

I’ve often commented that the intros and wrestler promos made for FMW matches are about the best thing going in their promotion: they are frequently hilariously awful, as Japanese performers stumble through Engrish and the ragtag group of Americans in the promotion deliver some of the most outrageously constipated “angry white guy” dialogues ever seen and heard. A tag team match between the team of Bad Boy Hido and Super Leather and that of Ricky Fuji and Horace Boulder (Hulk Hogan’s nephew) contains one of the best Japanese wrestling promos I’ve ever seen, as Fuji mangles his English-language dialogue and Boulder looks as though he hasn’t defecated in at least four months. The match itself (as might be expected from this gaggle of wrestlers) is fairly atrocious. Boulder may be one of the most gangly, least-talented and poorly-coordinated wrestlers I’ve ever seen; watch as he botches move after move (the table suplex onto a prove Super Leather being the lowpoint), looking confused throughout much of the match. Super Leather (a wrestler based off Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface) is another woefully untalented wrestler: the guy was inexplicably extremely popular in Japan (and a longtime FMW champion) but typically had matches that resembled train wrecks. As is the case with many matches on this DVD, this one is heavily truncated, resulting in footage of men scrambling around ringside, a few of the least-punishing looking in-ring moves you’ll ever see, and a match that sort of starts, does something, and ends before a viewer is even sure what the hell just happened. The wrestling match is a one and half star waste of time – but oh so worthwhile due to the jaw-dropping, must-see promos.

Third on the lineup is a women’s match, pitting old rivals Shark Tsuchiya and Megumi Kudo against one another. Tsuchiya is obviously the bigger, more powerful and more violent competitor here; Kudo the more graceful, technical wrestler. The result is a contest that has a bit of everything, from a tightrope act on the ring ropes, to a barbed wire-coated kendo stick and use of a length of chain as a strangulation device. This is pretty much the back and forth battle of good versus evil that one would expect, with Kudo wearing traditional Chinese warrior garb for whatever reason and, on a few occasions, using the mystical “green mist” to blind her opponents. Yeah. Eventually, this one breaks down into a straight up rumble between the women competitors in FMW. I’ll give it two and a half stars – a definite improvement over the first two matches on this program, but nothing truly special.

The late Mike “Gladiator” Awesome is a wrestler who had some degree of success in both the US (with stints in ECW, WCW, and the WWE) and Japan: a big, powerful guy who’s exactly the type of American who could “get over” in the land of the rising sun. He also had perhaps some of the most laughable mic skills ever seen in pro wrestling – in this next match, pitting Awesome and Hisakatsu Oya against fan favorite, high-flying wrestler Hayabusa and his partner Katsutoshi Niiyama, Awesome spits and hollers like a madman in his pre-match interview. Say what you like about him, but Awesome actually had some impressive in-ring moves, able to fly off the top-rope like a flyweight and deliver some seriously nasty powerbombs and slams. Hayabusa, on the other hand, is known for his more graceful acrobatic moves, and this tag team match basically served to heighten the feud between those two (with the stout, workmanlike wrestler Niiyama and technically gifted grappler Oya along for the ride). Easily, this is the most exciting match to this point on The Legend Dawns, with lots of back and forth pinfall attempts, submission holds, and power moves. Hayabusa is in the ring for much of the time (surprise!), and the buildup to the finish is pretty captivating. Three and a half stars.

FMW goes for full on bloodbath for the fifth match on this DVD: a barbed wire, lights out deathmatch between two veterans of the format. Mitsuhiro Matsunaga (arguably the most extreme wrestler in Japan for his willingness to battle in any kind of deathmatch) took on the garbage wrestling star most unwilling to take a bump, Mr. Pogo. Since the arena lights have been turned off for this match, it’s often difficult to see what’s actually happening – this also has the added benefit of obscuring the fact that the “extreme violence” in this match is often concocted by illusion rather than by actually slicing and dicing either of the wrestlers. At one point, Pogo heats up a large fork with a blowtorch – then switches the heated fork out for a fresh one which he digs into the scar-tissue-covered forehead of Matsunaga. And WTF is with the glow in the dark sickle? Obviously, lots of blood in this match – with Matsunaga doing most of the bleeding – and a fiery conclusion that’s pretty wild. This certainly ups the level of violence on the DVD, but it’s not what I’d call a classic deathmatch by any stretch. Two and a half stars.

Following this string of action from inside Korakuen Hall, The Legend Dawns shifts its attention to an outdoor pavilion, where the familiar Masato Tanaka (who wrestled in ECW in the late 1990s) takes on Yukihiro “WING” Kanemura. This fight, unlike many on the program, is pretty much a straight-up wrestling match (surprising considering Kanemura’s extreme wrestling pedigree), and starts off with some seriously stiff kick and strike exchanges between the two men. Early on in the match, Tanaka appears to suffer an knee injury and is hobbled throughout the rest of the match – or is this a ploy to make it seem like the much less talented Kanemura actually has a chance to beat him? Either way, this seems like a pretty decent technical match that’s been edited down to be bare-bones filler on this DVD; I would have really liked to have seen the whole match, but alas, we’re left with a brief snippet. I’m giving it a generous three stars.

In a “Graveyard Match” (that features barbed wire galore and the stipulation that the loser has to be dumped into a casket and held down for a full ten count inside the box), the team of Mr. Pogo and Horace Boulder takes on Mitsuhiro Matsunaga and his partner Super Leather. Gotta love the intro video with Leatherface shaking the chainsaw and growling like a rabid badger. The match itself is gruesome at times – as expected, Pogo uses a steak knife to rip up Matsunaga’s forehead and at one point, has him suspended outside the ring by a chain around his neck. Highlight (?) of the match comes when camera zooms in to see Matsunaga clearly blading his scalp viciously. Oops! At some point during this match, Super Leather all but vanishes, leaving Matsunaga to absorb all sorts of punishment. This match almost has too much “violent crap” for it to even mean anything – there’s blood all over, but does a viewer even care? Two and a half stars for the spectacle.

The final match on this program is unarguably the best match here: a singles contest between Mike “Gladiator” Awesome and Hayabusa, a further chapter in their feud. Hayabusa’s aerial moves during the match alternate between being highly impressive (a hurricanrana from the top rope, dumping the huge 6’7” Awesome halfway across the ring) and utterly sloppy – at one point, he botches a moonsault, landing on a prone Awesome neck and head first. The crumbling of his spinal column just looks horrible, but amazingly, the man was able to continue in the match. This one features a nice buildup to the finale, and a pretty astounding series of back and forth moves and pinfall attempts towards its end – and doesn’t necessarily work out as one might have expected, setting up further, intense battles between these two fighters. Four stars – best on the disc.

All things considered, The Legend Dawns seems painfully mediocre. It’s a disc that probably will give the viewer a fix if he’s jonesing for some violent Japanese wrestling, but there’s really only one match here that’s truly recommendable – and only that match that seems to be presented in its entirely. Combined with the amateurish presentation, adolescent-level humor, and poor commentating, the fact that almost all of the matches here are presented in highlighted form only, without showing the viewer the entire match, makes this disc almost contemptible. As the FMW DVD series went along, these problems would be fixed to some extent, but in many ways, someone has to be a pretty big fan of pro wrestling to endure these early efforts from TokyoPop.

“Uncensored Version” DVD from TokyoPop includes the brutality in all its blood-drenched glory and is full-frame; decent picture quality considering the transfer from VHS tape masters. Disc features English-language and original Japanese play-by-play audio options and optional Spanish subtitles. Extras include wrestler biographies, a photo gallery, text-based history of the FMW, a short profile of Hayabusa, and a bonus match:

Masato Tanaka versus Koji Nakagawa – A rather rough pure grappling match in which Tanaka seems to be “playing down” to the talent level of his opponent. He spends much of the match feigning injury while Nakagawa delivers the paltry offense he had. In any other promotion, this is likely to have been a “jobber match” in which Tanaka just decimated Nakagawa. Few big moves, but really a clinic from Tanaka. Two and a half stars – but why is this match shown essentially intact when others here have been torn to shreds by the editors?

7/10 – Certainly more violent and bloody than most American wrestling fans would be used to and does have some intense moments. Still, there’s worse, much more gory and downright brutal wrestling discs out there.

4/10 – Some four-letter profanity (though most all of it is in the subtitles) and some rough language. Maybe one or two f-bombs.

0/10 – Most people would be hard pressed to get excited over this – even if they do enjoy seeing women bump uglies whilst wearing Spandex

7/10 – Garbage wrestling from Japan has both its fan and detractors. I’d certainly call it an acquired taste.

(in mangled Engrish) “Razorface! Razorface? Who da hellarrryuu? You monster oar human. What?”

A Real Winner of an FMW Pre-Match Promo:

TOKYOPOP-Produced Best of FMW Short Video ~~ WARNING! NSFW-ish!

Craftsman 16″ Corded Electric Chainsaw: Cutting-Edge Conventional

Craftsman 16-Inch Corded Electric Chainsaw  Model  #34119

See it @ Craftsman.com 

(4/5)

Pros: Price.  Fitted with an Oregon bar and chain.  Extra chain included.  Automatic bar oiling.  Two-year warranty.  Adequate Operator’s Manual.

Cons: China built.  Stiff trigger action.  No installed chain-sharpening feature.  Bar and chain excluded from warranty.

It was a sad day when my Remington 14” Powercutter electric chainsaw would cut no more.  After more than a dozen years of reliable service, the trigger had begun to work intermittently.  I was amazed to find that the part was still available – and downright floored to discover the price of such a repair.

The Remington was perfectly suited to its assigned duties.  Remotely, I would use my 40-volt cordless Oregon chainsaw to cut firewood on the property – which is mostly standing-dead and winter kill hardwood.  After lugging said wood back to the house, the plug-in Remington was used to trim and cut to a manageable length.  With firewood foraging dependent upon the weather, my late-autumn need for a replacement saw was looming.

The Search

While in town for supplies, I stopped at the local Sears Hometown store to check available inventory.  Most of their chainsaw stock was of the cordless variety.  With the introduction of the Lithium-ion battery, it seems there’s not as much of a market for the dedicated plug-in electric saw.  But they did have one in-stock – and it was on sale.

My Lucky Day

The Craftsman 16-inch Electric Chainsaw (model 34119) was contained within a cardboard carton that resembled a dining room chair.  In its loud red box, it managed to be both funny to look at and awkward to carry.  Its 12 amp / 3.5 peak horsepower motor nearly doubled the available power of the Remington it replaced.

Adjustments

Completely assembled out of the box, the first task was to add oil to the reservoir that automatically feeds the bar oiler.  Unlike my Oregon‘s specialty oil, standard bar and chain oil is all you need with the Craftsman.  Chain tension is adjusted by means of a large dial located at the base of the bar. The folks at Craftsman have dealt with the popular chain-sharpening option by neglecting to install one.

Comparative Analysis

The Remington was the perfect saw for its purpose.  A fine balance of horsepower, weight and 14” bar length made it appropriately light and nimble for extended sawing sessions.  The Craftsman is heavier and noisier, with a pronounced “snap” to the chain brake upon release of the trigger.  The trigger itself has a somewhat clunky, hard-plastic resistance that requires a more precise index-finger effort – not compatible with an operator’s often-gloved hand.

Bar and chain removal and adjustment require no tools, so therefore are easier on the Craftsman.  After four months of ownership, it has yet to leak oil from the reservoir – a common problem with both gas and electric models from a variety of manufacturers.  The lack of a sharpening option is somewhat compensated by the inclusion of an Oregon replacement chain, which retails in the neighborhood of $14.00 (all prices US).

A Good Deal?

Though reliability has yet to be determined, the Craftsman 16” Electric Chainsaw is shaping-up as a good choice.  Seeing its $79.00 price tag chopped-down to $37.00 through Rewards Points incentives, I feel the overall risk is minimal – it would have cost more to repair the Remington.  With the extra chain inclusion, the Craftsman becomes a best buy for the sharp consumer in need of its plug-in simplicity and convenience.

Though a victim of dated technology, the corded electric chainsaw will always serve a purpose in the rural marketplace.  Model variety and availability may have lessened, but so have the prices.  For those in need of a conventional electric chainsaw, the Craftsman model 34119, with its 2-year limited warranty, deserves due consideration.

Sears Brands Management Corp.

Hoffman Estates, IL  60179

The Future Of Medicine May Depend On The Epigenetics Revolution~

The Epigenetics Revolution

epigeneticsbk

See it at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: mostly fascinating, cutting edge info

Cons: very scientifically detailed

I like to stay updated on what’s happening in the field of medicine and so recently I checked on amazon.com for books about gene therapy. When I discovered The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance by epigeneticist Nessa Carey, published in 2012, I was immediately intrigued and anxious to read it. I’m not a scientist of any kind, but do enjoy challenging my mind so I can learn something new that few people have probably even heard of. I know I hadn’t.

You’ve heard of genes, right? Our DNA, blueprint, genetic code? You get some from your mother, some from your father, to create your physical and mental self. They cannot be changed if you don’t like them, but that’s not the whole story behind them. Since about 1990 scientists have been dabbling in the revolutionary field of epigenetics, aware that our genes become expressed differently to account for biological diversity. For example, identical twins never develop very similarly – one may suffer a disease and the other remain healthy. Carey argues that simply mapping our genetic code isn’t enough to understand how we are susceptible to disease or deformity because our genes are influenced by certain positive and negative factors and outwardly changed by them.

It begins before we’re born and continues as we age, especially influenced by traumatic events like childhood abuse or neglect and malnourishment in the womb or as a teen as shown by  Carey. Good nutrition, managed stress, and pesticide avoidance are recommended as well as possibly supplementing with royal jelly and resveratrol because of their ability to be positive epigenetic factors. I did further research on freeze-dried royal jelly and am excited about what it offers.

careypic

I was disappointed that London-based Carey didn’t mention the potential of the first epigenetic drugs regenerating the damaged spinal cord, but the science is in its infancy and only taking unsteady, baby steps after an accidental death from premature gene therapy late last century. Pharmaceutical companies have made hefty investments in research and development of drugs to treat cancer and Carey predicts that by next year they’ll be available, followed five years later by drugs for other diseases. There’s so much they don’t know yet, but epigenetic therapy to switch on protective genes or switch off repressive genes does sound very promising. It could be a real gamechanger for people who are fighting diseases, inherited disabilities, and maybe even neurological injuries like my own.

Carey says on her website that The Epigenetics Revolution was written for the layperson with an interest in science, but it’s still challenging to read. There are sixteen, very detailed chapters about different aspects of the research that gave me a broad view of what they knew when the substantial book was published. She says she knows one thing for sure, that the epigenetics revolution is underway, and I’m very glad it is.

The Essential Kris Kristofferson For Raw Country Music~

The Essential Kris Kristofferson

essentialkk

See it at Amazon 

(5/5)

Pros: two lengthy discs of very enjoyable music

Cons: “Why Me, Lord?” irritates me

When I look at the name Kris Kristofferson, it seems like the pretty name of a celebrity. Maybe his real name is Christopher, but the rest is made up, you know? Yet I haven’t read of his changing his name.  It’s his movie roles that drew my attention because usually I listen to classic rock, blues, and pop.

I never bought a real country album until  my purchase of 2004’s The Essential Kris Kristofferson. I really didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t remember hearing the early Kristofferson (first album 1970), especially when he was covered by 500 artists from Elvis to Dylan, and his famous, Grammy-winning gospel song, probably heard on a televised Billy Graham crusade, was a vague memory.

This two-disc set comes with an interesting booklet sporting an essay that explains how the well-educated, working man Kristofferson brought something unique to country music, a greater sensibility and sensitivity to the art of songwriting that broadened his audience. His inclusion in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame is what piqued my interest when I read his biography in the extras. I’m having a kick listening to the discs. My delighted adopted grandmother said Kristofferson sounds just like Hank Williams with a drawl in his voice and his storytelling lyrics. He sure doesn’t sound like his gruff voice of today.

I‘d say he‘s a non-nasally Willie Nelson, a more hip Johnny Cash, a subdued Waylon Jennings.(who sang the Dukes of Hazard song). Those three, also called the Highwaymen with Kris, are featured in a song, Nelson one other and another by Rita Coolidge (his wife at time). I wish another duet with her had been included, especially since they won awards for a couple songs at least.

kkimage
Kristofferson grew up in Texas, graduated high school and college with high honors in California, then got an English degree in Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Instead of going to Vietnam he was stationed in West Germany as an army pilot.. As the essayist points out, Kristofferson’s music career didn’t take off as it could have if he had made music videos rather than movies like A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand.

I recognized only a few of the thirty-seven songs, namely “Me and Bobby McGee” covered by Janis Joplin, “For the Good Times” covered by Ray Price and “Help Me Make It Through The Night” covered by back-up singer Sammi Smith. Speaking of back-up singers, Coolidge, Gary Busey and Larry Gatlin were a few. Quite a few wonderful instruments were used throughout The Essential Kris Kristofferson besides the usual,  managing to highlight his always-intriguing voice for a country music treat. His voice really is unpredictable, as well, never content to be pretty and smooth like an American Idol singer, but more like American Raw. Oh yeah. He’s singing about his life, putting himself right out there for us, singing philosophically about a failed relationship, in admiration of others, about the grittiness of the American West or after a hangover. Johnny Cash is credited before a song with helping him beat the devil.

Nearly all these songs were written by Kristofferson early in his career, a few co-written by him. If I have any new favorites I’d say “Loving Her Is The Easiest Thing I’ll Ever Do Again,” “Sunday Morning Come Down” (covered by Cash), “Just The Other Side of Nowhere,” and “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams,” but I’ve been enjoying them all. It’s surprising to me, but this is country music you just won’t hear produced today. I feel like I’m in some friendly saloon having a good time with friends and not in an impersonal stadium among strangers.

Both discs are each a little over an hour and are presented crisply. I hope you’ll check out The Essential Kris Kristofferson.

“Just once more with feelin’, honey, and let’s call it a day.”

 

 

A Whimsical Paper Craft Adventure

Tearaway for PlayStation Vita

Tearaway_boxart

$35.99 on Amazon 

(3.5/5)

Pros: Unique graphical style, fun interactivity

Cons: Weak enemy encounters, short

Sony deserves major kudos for stepping up their game development this last generation. While their many studios have always proven to be extremely capable they’ve devoted more resources into creating new big budget franchises lately than both Microsoft and Nintendo by a wide margin. One of these series is Little Big Planet. Personally I’ve never been a fan, but the focus on creation and interactivity was commendable. Tearaway was made by the same studio, and was released to significant fanfare on the PlayStation Vita handheld system late last year. Unlike Little Big Planet this was a fully 3D title, but the central focus was still on creation related to each player’s individual experience. I figured it was worth a shot. I didn’t find Tearaway to be the revolution it has been heralded as, but it’s definitely one of the best games on the platform.

In Tearaway you play as a letter that’s intended to be delivered to you the player. This avatar is called Iota, and the game begins as he (or she) sprouts a body and becomes what is referred to as a ‘messenger.’ The world in Tearaway is almost entirely composed of paper. I say ‘almost everything’ simply because the sun, which is a live feed from the front facing camera on the system (showing the player’s real world face in the center) is the only thing that’s not. Your goal is to guide Iota through a series of environments so that he can climb to the highest point in the land and finally deliver his message to the sun. Admittedly the premise sounds weird, but the execution is charming beyond belief.

Tearaway is two parts 3D platformer and one part paper craft simulator. In this game you guide Iota through various environments wherein you move him with the left joystick and manipulate the camera with the right. In the beginning he lacks the ability to do anything besides walk and run, but as you progress new skills are unlocked (including the standard jump) and the environments become more complicated as Iota becomes more dynamic. The game makes heavy use of the Vita’s hardware features which include tilt and the ability to snap pictures. The most commonly used are the front and rear touch screens.

Specific areas of the game feature special sections of the ground that are white but textured with the PlayStation shape logos. Touching the rear touch pad will cause digital representations of your finger(s) to rip through the environment into the game world. You can manipulate the terrain with these; most commonly will use your fingers to move blocks or other objects so that Iota can progress. Other areas feature paper with reflective fingerprints which you can touch and drag on the front screen to reveal items or unlock the path forward. These are decent features, but the rear touch pad in particular gave me problems because it never felt entirely accurate. At times I had to resort to wildly swiping my finger across the the sensor on the back of the system to get it to register.

You will frequently be tasked with designing various elements that are used directly in the game. Characters will often request that you design facial features for them such as mouths, mustaches, or even eyes and it’s a delight to see your creations rear their head throughout the adventure. You can even customize Iota’s face and add decorations to his clothing if you want. When tasked with decorating you are taken to a screen that functions as a craft desk. From here you can select different colors of paper, and you use the touch screen to trace what you want cut. You have several options and can cut decorations from other paper which stick when you add them. It’s surprisingly intuitive and I was surprised at how much effort and time I took to make my creations. I’m not artistically inclined but I absolutely loved this feature.

The paper craft elements are implemented in an extremely compelling manner. It’s unfortunate then that the main gameplay is very basic. The environments are interesting to explore, and emphasis on personal creation is excellent, but the basic design leaves a little to be desired. The platforming elements just aren’t compelling. For a game that emphasizes creativity above all else it’s disappointing that the basic gameplay doesn’t convey this same level of imagination. Enemies are called ‘scraps’ here, but they never serve as much of a threat. You’re often tasked to destroy all nearby scraps, but this causes pacing issues because combat just isn’t very interesting. These enemies are dispatched in a few different ways, such as by throwing or using the touch screen, but when you die (after taking two hits) you continue from where you left off with virtually no penalty. To be honest combat feels like an afterthought and Tearaway would be better without it.

Tearaway doesn’t impress in the amount of polygons or geometry that it pushes, rather, in the art style and how it is implemented. The tech behind the engine is impressive, but the developers did an absolutely incredible job of selling the paper theme.  From simple screenshots it looks extremely charming and memorable, but in motion it’s breathtaking. The developers put a ton of work into every visual aspect imaginable.  Subtle visual cues such as paper strips signifying wind, and the way the paper grass moves against it is incredible. The environments take on a pastel appearance, but it matches the style impeccably. The developers implemented a style of animation which is very similar to stop motion. It looks amazing as you watch characters move within this world with the aforementioned method, and it truly sells the world to the player. The graphics overall are incredible.

The soundtrack is quite good as well. The music represents some of the best instrumentation I’ve heard in a video game which fits the folklore themes this title conveys. It’s really enjoyable, but this is one of those cases where it’s not particularly memorable. Still, everything fits, and I enjoyed all of the music a great deal. The sound effects are the highlight with realistic paper ‘swish’ sounds and scissors as the game cuts out your personal creations. It’s all very pleasant. Controls are pretty decent; Iota moves responsively to all joystick and button inputs. The only real problem I have is with the rear touch pad. You basically have to predict where your fingers will register on the screen, and I had a lot of difficulty with it. As I said before I had to swipe my finger across the touch pad several times in order to even figure out where to press, and this was mostly an exercise in frustration. Everything else works well, but the implementation of the rear touch pad could have used a little work.

If the Vita lacks one thing it’s games that take advantage of the unique inputs this little device offers. The creative elements are amazing here, and alone could sell most gamers on the platform. The big problem I have is that the developers spent more time creating a world and style than they did a game. Tearaway is an incredible journey that’s charming and memorable, but it’s a short lived one that doesn’t present any challenge whatsoever. Still, I recommend it.

I Deem This Dell Desktop (at $429) a Veritable Steal

Dell™ Inspiron 3000 (i3847-3846BK) Desktop Computer With 4th Gen Intel® Core™ i3 Processor

DELL DESKTOP PIC

See it at OfficeDepot.com

(4/5)

Pros: Manyfeatures, such as: 8 GB DDR3 RAM; 3.4 GHz Intel Core i3-4130 dual-core, “4-way-processing” CPU; crisp HDMI digital video; 1TB-capacity HD; wireless connectivity; Bluetooth 4.0 interface; 8 USB ports; 8-in-1 media reader; Windows 8.1 64-bit OS; etc.

Cons: The preinstalled 8 gigs of RAM isn’t expandable [but most consumers will never need more]. The keyboard’s nothing special [hence I’ve substituted Microsoft’s ergonomic “Sculpt” model.

 

Around November 2005, I bought my prior PC—a Compaq Presario SR1620NX “Windows XP” Desktop—which continues to function (barely) adequately to this day (though only because I added, by 2008, 1GB of RAM to its measly 512 MB of original, preinstalled RAM). Unfortunately, Microsoft’s vital, intermittent “security updates” for Windows XP will soon cease (on April 8). Therefore, last weekend at my neighborhood Office Depot store, I nabbed the subject of this review–which was briefly and luckily on sale for only $429 but regularly retails around $500.

This Dell desktop PC seems more than sufficient for my “average” purposes. First, it was relatively affordable. The last time I spent much more than $400 for a PC was in 2000, when I shelled out roughly $900 for an ostensibly “deluxe” HP desktop model that abruptly died just three years later. The moral of that story is—when it comes to computers–you don’t always get what you pay for. Sometimes buying “middle-of-the-road” (as opposed to leading-edge) componentry ends up being the most logical compromise for a judiciously frugal consumer. That said, going to the opposite extreme can be unwise: My ensuing (2003) dirt-cheap eMachines desktop expired after a mere year and a half, and the moral of that tale is “don’t count on longevity from an (entry-level) eMachines PC.”

By contrast, the abovementioned 2005 Compaq desktop, for a middling “$409” (not including my aforementioned, roughly 50-dollar upgrade of its original RAM) delivered nearly nine years of decent service; and my expectation is that this similarly priced Dell desktop will deliver a comparably big bang for my buck.

The dual-core i3 processor, according to Intel, features their Hyper-Threading Technology that enables each core of the processor to work on two tasks simultaneously. Thus this Dell PC can provide excellent performance for multitasking. I must say that switching from my old Win XP PC to this Dell—and then switching temporarily back to my Compaq PC of yesteryear—has readily highlighted the differences in performance. No, this Dell doesn’t implement an Intel “i5” (much less a leading-edge “i7”) processor; even so, when it comes to speed and power,  this “4-way-processing” CPU is very respectably “close enough” to its costlier Intel siblings’ performance benchmarks.

The hard drive’s generous capacity of 1 terabyte (1000 GB) strikes me as a case of overkill. The majority of consumers will never require even half that much HD space.

This desktop includes one “tray-loading” optical disc drive for playing and burning CDs and DVDs. Moreover, directly beneath that drive there’s a matching, empty bay into which you could easily install a second such disc drive.

Since so many peripheral devices nowadays connect via “USB,” it’s good that this Dell desktop includes enough such ports. There are two “USB 3.0” ports on the rear panel; and there’s a total of six “USB 2.0” ports (two behind a closable door on the front panel; and 4 on the rear panel). Of course, if you end up needing even more ports, external “USB hubs” are cheaply and ubiquitously available.

Fortuitously, this Dell Inspiron 3000 desktop perfectly interfaces with the Dell (model S2440L) 24-inch flat-panel LED monitor that I bought last year (to replace an early-2006, 19-inch CRT that had gradually died). Since that Dell LED monitor boasts HDMI connectivity but came with only a VGA cable, I initially tested the latter analog connection with this Dell PC’s analogous VGA port. The result was “satisfactory.” Nonetheless, I wasted no time buying an HDMI cable (almost 13 bucks at Walmart) and, upon connecting it to this PC’s HDMI port, I was gratified to behold the resulting 1080p digital video, which was noticeably sharper and brighter. Thus, after an initial bit of fiddling with the monitor’s brightness and contrast controls, the onscreen text seems optimally easy on my eyes.

Physically, this sizable-yet-wieldy Dell desktop PC, which was “assembled in Mexico” and whose case is suitably constructed of (mostly) steel, is, thankfully, much more lightweight (17.4 pounds)—and somewhat less tall (14 & 3/8”)—than my 2005 Compaq desktop (15.5”).

The included USB mouse functions fine and feels at least satisfactory, if not quite as absolutely ergonomic as the best mouse I’ve ever grasped.

And the included, typical, USB keyboard will perhaps satisfybut not necessarily delight–the majority of users. Its shallow, chiclet keys’ tactile response is, arguably, “okay.” That said, I myself find any “standard” (non-ergonomic) keyboard configuration well-nigh unusable for comfortable touch typing with accuracy and speed. Hence, for my prior PC, I’d long substituted a fully ergonomically sculpted Microsoft “Natural Elite” keyboard whose configuration helps prevent/ameliorate symptoms of carpel-tunnel syndrome, which I would somewhat manifest after protracted use of any “ordinary” keyboard.

In this vein, I initially tried using a generic “USB-to-PS2” adapter to attach my approximately ten-year-old, white (Natural Elite) Microsoft ergo keyboard (which has no USB plug). However, upon powering this Dell PC back on, I disappointedly saw that that “adapter” approach totally failed (absolutely zero keyboard-connectivity/functionality resulted). Hence I recently bought–via Amazon–a more recent (“Sculpt” model), black version of Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboard using its own USB dongle. The latter Microsoft product is proving not only satisfactorily functionally but also gratifyingly stylishly compatible with this Dell PC.

Since getting this PC, I’ve done lots of web-navigating (via an average cable-broadband connection), and such things as lengthy videos (via YouTube, etc.) run smoothly and gratifyingly. You can have more than a few windows open simultaneously with no significant slowdown in functionality, and multitasking of word processing and other “office” applications poses no problems whatsoever. Along with the “Internet Explorer 11” web browser, I’ve routinely simultaneously run sundry common desktop applications, such as the word processor, spreadsheet, and database included in the freely downloadable “LibreOffice 4.2” [because my formerly used (Win XP-compatible) “Microsoft Office 2000” won’t work with Win 8.1, and I’m loath to pay Microsoft “lifelong” rent for a more recent edition of their present-day “Office”]. However, I’ve not been using this PC for such potentially highly video-resources-demanding stuff as advanced graphical/video processing or cutting-edge videogaming.

You’ll surely appreciate this PC’s quietness. Unlike my prior, 2005 Compaq desktop PC–whose “fan hum” and (especially) “hard-drive noise” could be somewhat audible in a quiet room–this new Dell PC is virtually silent. Thus, whenever I want to know if the hard drive’s busy, my ears tell me nearly nothing, and I must glance at the pertinent little front-panel-light indicator.

It’s also worth noting that this PC’s preinstalled Windows 8.1 (unlike the nefarious Windows 8.0) not only makes it easy to default-boot to a traditional “desktop” screen (instead of a newfangled, controversial “tiles” user interface) but also resurrects the long-familiar, mouse-clickable “start” button. With a modicum of initial tweaking, Windows 8.1 will have the majority of longtime desktop-PC users feeling reasonably happy and comfortable.

Bottom line, at less than $500 this Dell desktop model should more than suffice for the majority of judiciously frugal and reasonably tech-savvy consumers whose PC-usage requirements are less than “leading-edge.”

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ADDENDUM:  “Product Features” List (thanks to BestBuy.com):

4th Gen Intel® Core™ i3-4130 processor
Features a 3MB cache and 3.4GHz processor speed.

Intel® Core™ i3 processor
Features smart 4-way processing performance for HD quality computing. Intel® HD graphics are built into Intel’s smart new processors.

8GB DDR3 memory
For multitasking power.

Multiformat DVD±RW/CD-RW drive
Create custom DVDs and CDs.

1TB Serial ATA hard drive (7200 rpm)
Offers spacious storage and fast read/write times.

Intel® HD graphics
Feature integrated video memory for lush images with rich detail. HDMI output enables simple connection to an HDTV or high-definition display.

8-in-1 media reader
Supports Secure Digital, High Speed Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Memory Stick, Memory Stick PRO, MultiMediaCard, MultiMediaCard Plus and xD-Picture Card formats.

2 USB 3.0 and 6 USB 2.0 ports
For fast digital video, audio and data transfer.

Built-in Dell Wireless LAN (802.11a/b/g/n)
Connect to the Internet without wires.

Bluetooth 4.0 interface
Easily link with other Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as a cell phone or MP3 player.

Built-in 10/100/1000 Ethernet LAN
With RJ-45 connector enables quick and easy wired Web connection.

Microsoft Windows 8.1 64-bit operating system preinstalled
Provides a stable platform for word processing, Web navigation, gaming, media storage and more.